TRADITION AND SCRIPTURE
THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF ORTHODOXY
purpose of this section is not by any means to offer a comprehensive historical
perspective of the way the Orthodox Church has used the model of
"interpretation of Scripture in the context of tradition" discussed in
the previous sections. The length of this paper does not allow for such an
approach. Rather, we have chosen three important Orthodox thinkers from three
different periods and we shall treat them as case studies for the way this model
has been applied in different historical circumstances.
A. The Patristic period - St. Athanasius
Orthodox Church has its roots in the theology of the Church Fathers and it is
there that we have to look for the patterns followed by later authors. And so we
turn to St. Athanasius as an example of Scripture interpretation in the context
1. St. Athanasius and the Arian debate
According to Fr. Florovsky exegesis was the most important, if not the
only theological method in the first centuries of the Christian Church.
This was exactly the ground on which St. Athanasius (c. 300-373) had to meet
The Arians had gathered an impressive amount of Scriptural proof-texts in
favor of their position that the Son of God was no more than a creature and
tried to restrict the discussion to the Biblical ground. Their method consisted
in selecting their favorite passages and using them without much concern for the
total context of Revelation. But, as Florovsky points out, `Scripture had its
own pattern, or design, its internal structure and harmony. The Heretics ignore
this pattern, or rather substitute their own instead. In other words, they
re-arrange the Scriptural evidence on a pattern which is quite alien to the
2. St. Athanasius' response
In his reply, St. Athanasius invoked the regula
fidei. Here is his basic statement: `Let us, who possess the scope of faith,
restore the correct meaning of what they had wrongly interpreted'.
By "the scope of faith" St. Athanasius did not mean a vague
"general drift" of the Scriptures, but `precisely their credal core,
which is condensed in the "rule of faith" as it had been maintained in
the Church and "transmitted from fathers to fathers", while the Arians
had "no fathers" for their opinions'.
Fr. Florovsky believes that skopos in the language of St. Athanasius is a close equivalent to
what St. Irenaeus used to denote by hypothesis
- `the underlying "idea", the true design, the intended meaning'.
The way this principle was applied was that `time and time again, in his
scrutiny of the Arian arguments, St. Athanasius would summarize the basic tenets
of the Christian faith, before going into the actual re-examination of the
alleged proof-texts, in order to restore texts into their proper perspective'.
3. Critical conclusions
The method used by St. Athanasius, writes H.E.W. Turner, `has been taken
as a virtual abandonment of the appeal to Scripture and its replacement by an
argument from Tradition.'
The author sees a danger in this approach, which in less careful hands could
lead to imposing a straight-jacket on the Scripture, much like the Arians did.
Fr. Florovsky believes that Turner exaggerates the danger, which is
typical for the difference between Orthodox and the Protestant perspective. The
"rule of faith" used by St. Athanasius was not an external authority
imposed on Scripture, but only the condensation of the same Apostolic preaching
we find in written form in the New Testament. So, basically there is no real
danger in this approach; St. Athanasius is on solid ground.
To what extent is this a correct conclusion? Manlio Simonetti, in his
recent work on Patristic exegesis, states that St. Athanasius holds only a
marginal interest for his study, `because he himself took little interest in
If this is true, then it has, we believe, a very reasonable explanation. In the
concrete historical circumstances that he faced, St. Athanasius needed to resort
to a different approach. He was a polemist. His major objective was the defence
of orthodox faith against the heretics. Following his predecessors, Athanasius
did not engage in Biblical debates with opponents, but through an appeal to
Tradition he tried to re-establish the integrity of the Christian message,
threatened by the faulty way the Arians were handling Scripture. His concern was
not for the "letter", but for the "spirit" of Scripture.
When the core message of Scripture was restored, it could offer the
exegete a sure ground on which to exercise his activity. The integrated model of
Biblical interpretation in the context of tradition in which he strongly
believed offered Athanasius the possibility to respond to the challenge he
faced, emphasizing the "rule of faith" at the expense of exegesis,
without being less Scriptural, for that matter.
Of course, in the hands of people who did not have such a high view of
the sufficiency of Scripture this could lead to a neglect of the Bible and to an
over-emphasis on tradition, a condition which is not uncommon in Orthodox
circles. From an Orthodox perspective, if someone had an apprehension of the regula fidei, without a deep knowledge of Scripture, he could still
be an orthodox believer. On the basis of that doctrinal core he would be able to
build a correct understanding of the Bible and be protected from arbitrary
interpretations and from heresy.
This approach stands in sharp contrast to the Protestant position,
according to which, if we are faced with the alternative of the apprehension of
the "rule of faith" over a knowledge of Scripture, it is preferable to
chose Scripture, since from it, provided that we use the correct exegesis, we
can discover the core Christian message. It is hard to avoid the impression that
such a choice is based on a rationalistic and over optimistic hermeneutic, more
in line with Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking, than with the Biblical
Do we have to choose between these two hermeneutics? Not necessarily. In
fact, the strength of one is the weakness of the other. So, a better solution
would be a combination of both, in which equal attention is given to Scripture
and Tradition, with a freedom to emphasize one or the other, according to the
concrete circumstances which confront the Church.
B. The Byzantine period - St. Gregory Palamas
Florovsky believes that `Byzantine theology was an organic continuation of the
On this point there is not total agreement in the theological world.
The sure thing is that Byzantine writers, including St. Gregory Palamas, claimed
to follow in their theology the Church Fathers and especially the Cappadocians.
The study of Palamas as a representative personality for the Byzantine
theology is justified by his overarching influence on modern Orthodox theology.
LaCugna writes about him: `Gregory is as central a figure in the East as Thomas
Aquinas is in the West'.
1. St. Gregory - the hesychast theologian
St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) was not a speculative theologian. He was
a monk and a bishop. As a theologian he was concerned both to understand and
explain the spiritual experience of the Church.
Palamas was the most vigorous defender of hesychasm,
a form of spiritual developed by the monks on Mt. Athos, against the accusations
of Barlaam, an Italian, infiltrated by the Catholics among the Orthodox in
In fact in the dispute between Palamas and Barlaam we have a
confrontation between the mystical tradition of the East and the scholasticism
of the West. The irony is that although the Palamite theology has received
official recognition from the Orthodox Church at the Councils in 1347 and 1351,
it was soon forgotten and Orthodox theology stood for almost five centuries
under a strong scholastic influence.
St. Gregory starts his theological investigation with the question: What
is the essence of the Christian experience? The answer he gives to this
question, which is theosis, is not new. The Church Fathers - St. Athanasius, St.
Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Maximus, etc. - have used it
extensively before. The essence of theosis
is probably best expressed in the famous maxim of St Athanasius: `He became man
in order to divinize us in Himself' (Ad
This does not imply an ontological change
- man cannot become God; it means a personal encounter, an intimate sharing of
the divine life by the man created in His image, in such a way that he will
start bearing more and more His likeness.
The real question that confronted the theologian was how could this
mystical union be compatible with the divine transcendence? The answer of St.
Gregory was to make an ontological distinction between God's ousia
- the unknowable, imparticipable essence of God, and His energeiai
- the uncreated divine energies
through God can be known and participated into. Again, doing this, he claimed to
follow the Church Fathers.
St. Gregory distinguishes three aspects of God's being and associates to
them three types of union with God. The first aspect is God's essence,
to which corresponds union according to essence. This takes place only between
the divine persons, since the created order cannot be united with the divine
essence. the second aspect is the divine hypostases,
to which corresponds hypostatic union, possible only in the person of the
incarnated Son of God, between His two natures. Finally, there are the divine energies,
to which corresponds union according to energy, the only type of union
accessible to a creature, in order for the union to be real and for God's
transcendence to remain absolute.
St. Gregory avoids the risk of talking about an impersonal type of union
between man and the divine energies stating that the energies are enhypostatic,
that is, they are personal, in other words they cannot exist apart from the
2. St. Gregory and the Patristic tradition
St. Gregory was suspected of subversive innovations by his enemies and
this is still the way he is perceived in general in the West.
However, he thinks about himself as being deeply rooted in the tradition of the
LaCugna talks about two extremes in this debate. At one extreme she sees
those like Endre von Ivanka, who hold that `a real distinction between essence
and energies contradicts the thought of the Greek Fathers. In their opinion the
Cappadocians were making only an epistemological distinction, and not a real
one. At the other extreme she sees the neo-Palamites, who `celebrate the
patristic pedigree of Gregory's thought and at times speak as if no time, no
shift in language or philosophy, occurred between fourth and fourteenth
centuries.' LaCugna believes that whilst the texts quoted by Gregory from the
Cappadocians do not suggest an ontological distinction, but `does not exclude
the possibility that such a reading could be a legitimate and genuine
development of Cappadocian thought...'
3. Critical conclusions
It is not our objective here to offer a critique of the theology of St.
Gregory. What we are concerned about is the extent to which Palamas has used
Scripture and tradition in order to respond to the challenges of his day.
What we have here is a confrontation between the East and the West,
between the mystical tradition of the Orthodox Church, in light of which Palamas
tries to make sense of the doctrine of deification and the scholasticism of the
West, striving for philosophical coherency, understood in the terms of
Aristotelianism. The whole debate takes place on a philosophical and theological
plane, with very little reference to Scripture, and when this happens, as in the
discussion about the light of Mt. Tabor, the Biblical text is more a pretext for
speculation, than an object of exegesis.
We have seen in our presentation about the Patristic period that in the
context of the Arian debate, for reasons peculiar to the nature of the debate,
St. Athanasius attributed more attention to the theological argumentation at the
detriment of exegesis. With St. Gregory we see the Athanasian approach taken for
granted, in spite of the fact that the historical conditions had changed. The
implicit result was a domination of the philosophical approach and a neglect of
exegesis, a tendency that would continue in the Orthodox Church to the present
C. The contemporary period - Fr. Dumitru Staniloae
Orthodox Church of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries has been
confronted with a strange situation. Although in her worship she follows
faithfully the patterns established by the Church Fathers, in theology she has
been dominated from the seventeen century by a form of scholasticism of Catholic
origin. To this situation is addressed the call to renewal issued by Fr. Georges
is not enough to keep a "Byzantine liturgy", as we do... One has to go
to the very roots of this traditional "piety", and to recover the
"Patristic mind". Otherwise we may be in the danger of being inwardly
split - as many in out midst actually are - between the "traditional"
forms of "piety" and a very untraditional habit of traditional
thinking. It is a real danger. As "worshippers" we are still in
"the tradition of the Fathers". Should we not stand, conscientiously
and avowedly, in the same tradition also as "theologians", as
witnesses and teachers of Orthodoxy? Can we retain our integrity in any other
This effort of re-establishing the Patristic and Byzantine character of
Orthodox theology, together with its engagement in the general theological
dialogue and a constant striving towards becoming relevant in the context it
addresses, represent the distinctive marks of contemporary Orthodoxy. The
Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, who is considered by Olivier Clement
the most important Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century, is probably the
best example for the purpose of our discussion.
1. Staniloae and St. Gregory Palamas
At the beginning of his academic career, in 1930, Fr. Staniloae
(1903-1993) had translated into Romanian The
Dogmatics of Christos Androutsos. He was then under the influence of the
scholastic tendency that dominated at the time the Romanian Orthodox theology.
Eight years later he translated and commented the main works of St. Gregory
Palamas and this brought a dramatic change in his approach of theology and
spiritual life. He became a hesychast and through his theological work effected
a major change of direction in Romanian theology,
from a scholastic towards a more apophatic approach, without a neglect of the
2. The perichoretic model of Fr. Staniloae
In our presentation here we are not concerned with the whole dogmatic
system developed by Fr. Staniloae, but only with his understanding of Scripture
and tradition. Staniloae borrows from the doctrine of Trinity the concept of perichoresis
and uses it in order to create a dynamic model of the relationship between
Scripture, tradition and Church. In his understanding,
Church is the environment in which the content of Scripture or Revelation is
imprinted, through Tradition. Scripture or Revelation needs Tradition as a means
of activating its content, and Church as a practicing subject of Tradition and
as an environment in which the content of Scripture or Revelation is imprinted.
But the Church needs Scripture too, in order to be refreshed through it, to grow
in the knowledge and the living in Christ and to enrich its application to her
life, through Tradition. Church, Scripture and Tradition are indissolubly
The interpenetrated action of Church, tradition and Scripture is
empowered and works, according to Staniloae, by the Holy Spirit, who constituted
the Church, the Body of Christ, at Pentecost, inspired Scripture, the Word of
God, and continues to communicate Christ to us through tradition.
3. Critical conclusions
The value of the model proposed by Staniloae consists in its flexibility
and in the fact that it avoids and contradiction between the constitutive
elements. It also leaves space for a creative tension between them. Thus,
Scripture can challenge constantly the life of the Church and is a criterion of
validity for tradition; Tradition provides the hermeneutical key to Scripture
and helps the Church to be both identical with its nature and ever renewed in
history; and finally, the Church protects Scripture from an arbitrary
individualistic appropriation and offers tradition the institutional and
sacramental context in which to be developed.
The main problem in this model comes from the insistence of Fr. Staniloae
on the preeminent role of the Church over Scripture and tradition,
manifested among other ways, through her infallibility. The result of this
emphasis is that it disturbs the fine balance of Scripture and tradition in
favor of the second, which leads, on one hand to a practical neglect of
Scripture in the life of the Church, and on the other side, to a diminution of
the authority of Scripture in validating or invalidating particular traditions.
The perichoretic model of Dumitru Staniloae, for the relationship between
Scripture, tradition and Church, with its qualities and weaknesses is a relevant
example for the stage of the debate on this issue in contemporary Orthodoxy. Is
there a way out, and ahead, of here? We believe there is, and the signs for it
are already showing here and there.
While neo-Palamite Orthodox theologians like Lossky, Meyendorff, Ware and
Staniloae are partisans of this thesis, Catholic and Protestant scholars
like Jugie, Wendebourg, Williams and LaCugna oppose it.
`The ultimate purpose of St. Gregory's theological teaching was to defend
the reality of Christian experience. Salvation
is more than forgiveness. It is a genuine renewal of man. And this
renewal is affected not by the discharge, or release of certain natural
energies implied in man's own creaturely being, but by the "energies of
God".'Florovsky, pp. 117-118.
`Hesychasm (hesychia = quietude) was a method of contemplation whose aim was
to behold the glory of god, the uncreated divine light, that appeared to the
disciples on Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration of Christ.', LaCugna, p.
`The term theosis is indeed quite
embarrassing if we would think in "ontological" categories.
Indeed, man simply cannot "become" god. But the Fathers were
thinking in "personal" terms and the mystery of personal communion
was involved at this point. Theosis
meant a personal encounter. It is that intimate intercourse of man with
God, im which the whole of human existence is, as it were, permeated by the
Divine Presence.' Florovsky, p. 115.
`What The Vatican II Council has done pastorally and structurally for the
Roman-Catholic Church, Fr. Staniloae has done for Orthodoxy in the area of
theological reflection.' Ion Bria, Spatiul
nemuririi [The Space of Immortality], Editura Trinitas, Iasi, 1994.
He writes on this issue: `Negative theology needs positive terms in order to
negate them... Far from demanding a denial of the rational concepts,
negative theology looks for enriching them'. D Staniloae, Spiritualitatea
ortodoxa [Orthodox Spirituality], Editura IBM al BOR, Bucuresti, 1981,